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IAFF Scores Major Victories Despite Gridlock

January 14, 2013 -- While political pundits are lamenting the gridlock that dominated the recently adjourned 112th Congress, the IAFF is celebrating a string of legislative accomplishments in the closing days of the session.

In a Congress that set new records for ineffectiveness – enacting the fewest laws, working the least number of days and failing to address the most significant problems facing the nation – the IAFF was able to reauthorize the Assistance to Firefighters (FIRE Act) and Staffing for Adquate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs, establish a new fire fighter safety program, protect the ability of fire fighters to run for political office and expand the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB). And, the IAFF accomplished all of these important initiatives during the chaotic environment of the post-election Lame Duck session.

“Once again this IAFF demonstrated that our bipartisan, pragmatic approach produces meaningful results for the nation’s professional fire fighters,” says IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger. “While partisan battles blocked the agenda of most other groups, this IAFF successfully navigated even the most treacherous waters.”

In addition to enacting important new initiatives, the IAFF also blocked proposals harmful to fire fighters during congressional negotiations over the so-called “fiscal cliff” (see box). Many of these attacks are likely to return in the new 113th Congress as the need for deficit reduction continues to be the overarching priority facing the nation.

“We will need to once again bring our A-Game to Capitol Hill this year,” says Schaitberger. “And the continued support of our allies in both parties will be necessary to fight back against proposals to balance the budget on the backs of fire fighters.”

SAFER Reauthorization Secures Funding for Staffing

No law enacted in the 112th Congress was as important for professional fire fighters as the reauthorization of the SAFER program. Over the past 10 years, SAFER has provided billions of dollars to hire additional fire fighters. And, since the onset of the Great Recession, the SAFER program has enabled communities to rehire thousands of laid-off fire fighters and prevent additional staffing cuts.

For the past four years, the program has worked only because the IAFF has been able to secure waivers from many of the law’s requirements. The reauthorization that was enacted in December makes many of these waivers permanent. In addition, the new law simplifies the local matching requirement to make it easier for fire departments to apply for grants and removes the salary cap.

The same law also improves FIRE grants. Among the important changes is a significant increase in the size of grants, with the nation’s largest jurisdictions able to receive up to $9 million per year. The new law also decreases the local matching requirement which will enable struggling communities to receive federal assistance to purchase training and equipment.

The legislation reauthorizing the FIRE Act and SAFER grant programs overcame numerous obstacles over its four-year odyssey. The House of Representatives passed the legislation in 2009, but the Senate was stymied by the opposition of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who argued that the entire program was unconstitutional. To surmount Coburn’s threatened filibuster, the IAFF worked closely with Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) to negotiate a compromise that enabled the bill to move forward.

Safety Standards Promoted

Another important law enacted during the Lame Duck session of Congress was the Fire Fighter Fatality Reduction Act (see guest column from Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) on page XX). This new program will examine whether fire departments are complying with national consensus safety standards, including NFPA standards for staffing levels and protective gear and equipment.

A task force created by the law and staffed by representatives of national fire service organizations will explore ways to encourage fire departments to comply with standards that protect fire fighter health and safety. Representative Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Senator Sherrod Brown had originally introduced the Fire Fighter Fatality Reduction Act as a free-standing bill four years ago, and they worked closely with the IAFF to ensure the legislation made it into law.

Hatch Act Amended

Working with the bipartisan team of Senator Dan Akaka (D-HI) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the IAFF secured passage of legislation repealing a federal law that prohibits fire fighters from running for political office if their employer received federal funds. The Hatch Act bars political activity by federal workers, but one provision extends this restriction to state and local government employees whose jobs involve duties that are funded with federal grants, including the FIRE Act and SAFER grant programs.

While some fire fighters will remain covered by similar state restrictions, often referred to as “mini-Hatch Acts,” municipal fire fighters will no longer be barred from seeking office under federal law.

PSOB Expanded

Also enacted during the Lame Duck session was an important expansion of the Public Safety Officers Benefit program. Previously, families of fire fighters who die from heart attacks and strokes were eligible to receive the PSOB, but the Department of Justice narrowly interpreted that language and excluded deaths caused by aneurysms. The new law, which was championed by Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT), expands the definition of cardiovascular disease to include vascular ruptures caused by aneurysms.

Summing up the 112th Congress, IAFF Assistant to the General President Kevin O’Connor calls it “the most chaotic and contentious legislative session I have ever witnessed.” But he adds, “Our success in the final days proves just how much can be accomplished when you are willing to put politics aside. Even in the midst of partisan warfare, we lobby not as Democrats or Republicans, but as fire fighters.”